Northwest Florida film community unites to bring 'Zombeez - The Movie' to life

Savannah Evanoff
Northwest Florida Daily News

Elesia Marie is a triple threat, but mostly by accident.

The Fort Walton Beach resident wrote, directed and acted in her locally produced film, “Zombeez — The Movie.” Marie always has wanted to be an actress and pursued acting, but when she stumbled into all three, it was one of the scariest things she has ever done, she said.

“It's really cool. It's crazy,” Marie said. “I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll do that in a couple of years when I have the money,’ and to just like dive into it with no experience whatsoever was terrifying, but it was exciting and thrilling all at the same time. I've been really trying not to get emotional, because it's happening.”

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From left, producer Nick Smith; director, writer and lead actress Elesia Marie; and lead actor and associate producer Durrell Bennett review a previously recorded take during the filming of "Zombeez — The Movie" at the Elks Lodge 1795 on Okaloosa Island.

The film wrapped this month and Marie hopes to have it edited by September. She plans to premiere it at Suds n Cinema in downtown Fort Walton Beach.

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‘Actresses don’t write’

“Zombeez — The Movie” is a 106-page script, which translates to an estimated 106 minutes worth of film.

The thing about it, Marie hates writing. Or, so she thought.

Growing up, her parents always told her she should be a writer. But she was an actress, and actresses don’t write, she said.

“I rejected that whole side of me; I was not gonna let it come out unless I had a paper due at school, and then I would wait 'til the last minute, write a paper and get an A,” Marie said. “Other than that, it was like, ‘No, I'm not doing it.’ I didn't want to do it. When the pandemic hit, it was like, ‘Well, there's nothing else to do. I guess I could try and see what happens.’”

A couple of years ago, Marie self-published a small collection of funny anecdotes she formerly posted on Facebook in a book called, “Did that Just Happen?” — mostly so her mother would leave her alone. But this script practically wrote itself.

Marie was talking to her husband — who works with a beekeeper — about a mite infestation causing honeybees to behave differently, like zombies. In that instant, the idea for “Zombeez” was born.

“I was looking it up on IMDB to see if there was anything called ‘Zombeez,’” Marie said. “I watched a lot of those sci-fi channel original movies like “Sharknado” and it sounds like something that should be on the sci-fi channel. I just started getting all these ideas for it.”

The cast and crew shoot a scene from "Zombeez — The Movie "at the Elks Lodge 1795 on Okaloosa Island.

Marie wrote the script during the first half of the quarantine, starting in March 2020, and finishing last June. She then connected with Nick Smith, a local producer.

“I asked him some questions about how to get started and stuff, and he read the script, and he's like, ‘I like it. Let's get started,’” Marie said. “I was like, ‘What do you mean, like right now or next year?’ He’s like, ‘Let’s do it now.’”

The bee's knees

The movie takes place in a fictional small town in Florida spelled as Bisqueniese Bay, but pronounced “Bee’s Knees Bay.”

“It's a joke; only the locals know how to pronounce it,” Marie said. “The town is mostly farmers and bee farmers.”

One day, all the bee hives start mysteriously dying off, so they call an entomologist, Marie said. Then, mutilated bodies turn up and the coroner tries to figure out what's going on, she said.

“The coroner and the entomologist, of course, have a history because you can't have a good sci-fi movie without a troubled couple,” Marie said. “So basically, they have to figure out how to stop the bees without destroying the rest of the hives. Because honey bees do so much for pollination.”

While it’s no science lesson, Marie said it does show how important honeybees are to the environment.

“The solution to the problem is — I can't say what it is — but it's pretty funny,” Marie said.

A Northwest Florida project

Marie started casting last fall. She based some of the characters on actors she had worked with in the past, but it was still the hardest part, she said

“You want everybody to get the part, but everybody can't get the part,” Marie said. “Everything's shut down for the most part; it was just safer to have Zoom auditions, which was interesting. I don't think you can really get a feel of a person through Zoom.”

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The cast, composed of all local actors, had its first table read in January.

The talent is “absolutely amazing,” and many of them are first-timers, Marie said.

“I think just to give somebody a chance, because the acting industry is like, ‘If you don't have a resume,’ they're not gonna look at you twice,” Marie said.

Durrell Bennett, the lead actor and an associate producer, had never done a feature film before. One of his theater friends tagged him in the post about Marie needing a leading man for the film.

“I was like, ‘Well, I'll give it a shot. I mean, they’re still looking, so why not?’ ” Bennett said.

He submitted a video audition first and then did a Zoom audition.

In big name productions, actors typically don't know whether they have a role until the movie is announced, Bennett said. He asked Marie to let him know if he didn’t get the part.

“She said, ‘I'll let you know if you do or don't make it by Christmas,’ ” Bennett said. “Christmas and New Year's came and went. I was like, ‘Maybe I just wasn't who they're looking for.’ ”

On the first or second of January, Marie offered him the role.

“I was in my living room, jumping up and down,” Bennett said. “This is my very first feature film and I'm doing it as a lead character. I’m like, ‘This is amazing.’ ”

Elesia Marie plays Jess Johnson and Durrell Bennett plays Jake Simmonds in "Zombeez — The Movie."

Bennett commuted from Pensacola to play the lead role of Jake, an apiarist, opposite to Marie’s role of Jess.

“We had to work together with some of the townspeople to figure this out and then save the town,” Bennett said.

Film acting is a lot different than theater acting.

“It’s long days,” Bennett said. “You get a chance to read these things and figure out what works and what doesn't work. You really are around these people all day, and when the energy is there, it's just there. On set, it was amazing getting to work with such talented people, and learning so much and being able to be a lead role. And people actually think I'm doing pretty good. I love it.”

Bennett, who is in the Navy, will go to Bahrain in September. He hopes to see the premiere before he leaves.

“It's bittersweet for me to leave, because I've really gotten a footing here in acting, in film and theater, so I'm kinda like, ‘Ah, man, I’m leaving all this behind,’ ” he said.  “This is 100% my crowning achievement in film, 100%. So to do it before I left Pensacola is amazing.”

Like Bennett, Shannon Williams commuted from Pensacola to play opposite Marie as Jess’ father, Earl, and also was an associate producer for the film.

“When I read the script, I was blown away,” Williams said. “It is such an incredibly clever and fun script. I said, ‘Yep, I want to be a part of this.’ ”

Williams thinks what makes the script special is all the feel-good moments.

“There's a lot of family and friends. There's a lot of close relationships, and that makes it really nice,” he said. “She made ‘Zombeez’ in the same vein as ‘3-Headed Shark Attack,’ something that can be a little over the top, but fun.”

The film gave Williams, a Navy veteran, the opportunity to embrace his background. His entire life, people have made fun of his accent, comparing it to a Texan.

Northwest Florida, aka the Redneck Riviera, was the butt of the joke.

“There's been a swing in this whole mentality; let's poke fun of ourselves, like a comedian does,” Williams said. “I don't know that that's what (Marie) was doing, but that's what I've been doing. Why not celebrate who we are? Don't run from it. Don't apologize for it, but celebrate it. That is what made this project really fun, because I do feel it's going to get a big audience and it will shine a light on Northwest Florida.”

Plus, he doesn’t have to act much.

“The way she wrote this character, when I put my arm around (Jess), kiss her on the forehead and stuff like that, that’s what I actually do with my daughter who's in her 30s,” Williams said. “I kiss her on the head and I have for years and years, so when she wrote this character, I was like, ‘My God, I get to play myself.’ No acting whatsoever, none, just be me and enjoy it.”

Actors Janet Lonston, Gene Alexander, Shannon Williams, Elesia Marie, Kei-Undra Turne and Tilden Whitefield cut their reaction scene during filming of "Zombeez — The Movie" at the Elks Lodge 1795 on Okaloosa Island.

His character also has a grandson the same age as his real life grandson. He loves acting alongside Jess, too.

“Let me tell you what, Elesia, she came to play,” Williams said. “She is a no joke, very legitimate actress, very comfortable in her skin, very comfortable in front of the camera. She plays such a good person. There's no rotten apple in this story.”

Marie is an incredible young woman, he added.

“She has done something that I am super proud to be a part of,” Williams said. “I’m hanging my hat on it.”

Williams thinks it was neat to go to a set even on days he wasn't filming to see how enthused volunteers were for the project.

“The whole atmosphere is just this high of enthusiasm,” he said. “The general rule, you go in, you know your job, you do your job, and everybody is working toward this crazy vision of trying to make this thing come to life. It’s long days and it's hard work, and it is fun. F-U-N is the only word I can use to describe acting. It's fun all day long.”

A tour of the Florida Panhandle

The movie isn’t just local cast members, it’s local sites.

The scenes were shot in different Northwest Florida cities, such as Fort Walton Beach, Navarre, Gulf Breeze, Crestview, DeFuniak Springs, Baker and Milton. The locations brought out their creativity, Marie said.

“We've had to do some crazy things to make things look like what they aren't,” Marie said. “We filmed at my chiropractor's office, Fort Walton Beach Chiropractic. Dr. Scott Smith, we turned his office into a sheriff's station.”

They also created a makeshift park in the backyard of Red Roof Retreat, an Airbnb in Navarre, and transformed a middle school locker room into a morgue. They shot at many locally known sites, such as Holland farms and the Blackman Community Center in Milton, John Beasley Park on Okaloosa Island and Shoreline Park in Gulf Breeze.

Marie worked closely with Gail Morgan, the Destin-Fort Walton Beach film commissioner, to plan and obtain permits. The hardest thing was not using drones, Marie said.

The bees in the movie will be created using computer-generated imagery, she said. After all, you can't find wild "zombeez" in nature.

Makeup artist Shany McMellon catches excess "bee slime" from Shannon Williams during filming of "Zombeez — The Movie" at the Elks Lodge 1795 on Okaloosa Island.

Marie wanted the film to be hyper-local to bring more attention to this area. It’s difficult for members of the film community to travel to Atlanta or New Orleans frequently for projects.

“We have a beautiful area here; we've got a lot of talent here, but it just seems to get overlooked by all of the bigger areas,” Marie said. “Also, we don't have the tax credits that those other places have, so I'm hoping if we bring more attention to the film here, then maybe we will be able to offer those tax credits to film companies who want to come.”

'A crash course in filmmaking'

Most film projects in Northwest Florida are passion projects.

But people have bills to pay, too, Marie said. While she isn’t paying the cast and crew the same rates at the Screen Actors Guild, she pays them what she can, she said.

The cast and crew have taken ownership of the project, too. Janet Longton, the wardrobe head, worked for free and bought much of the wardrobe with her own money, Marie said. Marie sewed some of the outfits, too.

“We have a lot of people who have donated time. They've donated money, they've donated resources, locations to help us out because they believed in the project, too,” Marie said. “I would say almost even more than me to a point. The response and the help that I've been getting, it’s been absolutely humbling and overwhelming.”

Nik Flagstar, a local musician, wrote the theme song.

“It’s absolutely phenomenal,” Marie said. “I told him what I wanted it to sound like and he asked me what the script was about, and he did a really great job on it.”

Marie’s husband, Courtney Higgins, an Air Force veteran, also has played a large part in financing and supporting the film.

“I don't think he thought it was going to jump off the way it did, like I did,” Marie said. “But he was like, ‘We have some money saved up if you need to use it for the project.’ I guess he's seen me struggle over the years, just auditioning and trying to get roles and things like that, so he wanted me to have this opportunity for myself and then create opportunities for other people as well.”

Fort Walton Beach resident Elesia Marie wrote, directed and acted in "Zombeez - The Movie."

Her family also helped finance the project through a crowdfunding campaign. They have always supported her dreams, Marie said.

“I never thought it would lead me down this path,” she said. “I just wanted to show up to the set, say my lines and go home. That's what my dream was, not all the other stuff. But here I am. I do like it. I'm one of those people who thrive off of the pressure. I would say that it's definitely been full of pressure. Every time an obstacle has come up, it gets worked out.”

Playing so many roles in the filmmaking process is overwhelming, Marie said.

“This has been like a crash course in filmmaking, learning every aspect of filmmaking,” she said. “I've been on YouTube quite a bit, so I sound like I know what I'm talking about. All I know is, I’m ready for my close-up.”

While Marie might not think of herself as a writer; she already has a couple of scripts in the back of her head, she said.

“I would love to have a network in place of local talent and crew already in place where we can just start cranking out maybe two movies a year,” Marie said. “Paid movies, but good movies that get distribution, and don't just end up on the cutting room floor on YouTube, not that there's anything wrong with that. To me, the point of a film is to be seen by other people. I just wanna make movies.”